Poetry, I must admit, isn't really my bag. I've always thought of poetry - proper, dense, artsy poetry, not fun poetry like that of Max Boyce and Dr. Seuss - as a lazy middle ground for people who are neither talented enough to write songs nor inspired enough to write proper stories. Poets don't have to adhere to any rhyme scheme, meter, or musical structure, and where prose is generally expected to make some sort of sense, poetry is often appluaded for cloaking its meanings (where they actually exist) behind several layers of imagery and symbolism and nonsense.
So that's my opinion on poetry. It's a pretty shit opinion, and not one I'm particularly proud of, but the rest of this blog post won't make much sense without it.
I recently purchased Easter, Patti Smith's 1978 breakthrough album, on the back of a glowing recommendation from +Audio Antihero. Patti Smith, of course, is a poet, and much of Easter is made up of the dense, artsy poetry to which I was referring earlier. Here, for example, is Babelogue, a spoken-word rant that's accompanied only by the cheering, clapping, and general chatter of an enthusiastic crowd:
"I haven't fucked much with the past, but I've fucked plenty with the future. Over the skin of silk are scars from the splinters of stations and walls I've caressed. A stage is like each bolt of wood, like a log of Helen, is my pleasure. I would measure the success of a night by the way by the way by the amount of piss and seed I could exude over the columns that nestled the P.A.
"Some nights I'd surprise everybody by skipping off with a skirt of green net sewed over with flat metallic circles which dazzled and flashed. The lights were violet and white. I had an ornamental veil, but I couldn't bear to use it. When my hair was cropped, I craved covering, but now my hair itself is a veil, and the scalp inside is a scalp of a crazy and sleepy Comanche lies beneath this netting of the skin.
"I wake up. I am lying peacefully, I am lying peacefully and my knees are open to the sun. I desire him, and he is absolutely ready to seize me. In heart I am a Moslem; in heart I am an American; in heart I am Moslem, in heart I'm an American artist, and I have no guilt. I seek pleasure. I seek the nerves under your skin. The narrow archway; the layers; the scroll of ancient lettuce. We worship the flaw, the belly, the belly, the mole on the belly of an exquisite whore. He spared the child and spoiled the rod. I have not sold myself to God."
What does it mean? I've no idea. But here's the thing: all of my problems with poetry have a tendency to disappear when I hear it read aloud.
Written down, I can scarcely struggle through those lyrics. They're just a stream of gibberish, flickering inconsequentially past my eyes like three paragraphs of TV static. But when spat by Smith - who is audibly shaking throughout Babelogue, though seemingly from some kind of ecstatic rage rather than from nerves - they are far more engaging. I can't tell you what isolated lines mean, but her delivery makes it clear that the overall message is something like 'I'm different, I'm unique, I'm an artist, and I've got attitude, motherfuckers!'
(Admittedly, it does help that Babelogue is basically just an intro for Rock 'n' Roll Nigger, which is a relatively accessible and straightforward rock song. Sure, Patti's liberal use of the N-word is kind of problematic, but overall, the lyrics are nowhere near as challenging as what preceded them.)
Frankly, I've no idea if I could listen to more than a few minutes of Patti Smith's poetry without the Patti Smith Group rocking away in the background. I love both Easter and Horses (which I've had for years), but as perfect as many of Patti's lyrics are, I think I mainly like them for how they sound and feel alongside the music, rather than for the text itself.
This, for example, is totally amazing. Take away either element - music or lyrics - and it won't be.
So I won't be buying any Patti Smith poetry books any time soon. I will almost certainly buy more of her albums, though.