Patti Smith occupies a singular place in our culture: downtown rocker and street poet turned memoirist and high priestess of cool. Her latest book, “Devotion,” is a slim meditation on the essential mystery of the creative act that is equal parts exasperating and inspiring. Whatever its merits, it’s safe to say that her admirers — who are legion — will receive it worshipfully, while her skeptics — if there even is such a thing — will find it slight, precious and unconvincing. By now, most people have probably made up their minds about Patti Smith.
“Devotion,” we are solemnly told, is part of the “Why I Write” series, based on the Windham-Campbell lectures delivered annually at Yale University. The opening sequence describes what we are meant to assume is a typical week or so in the life of Patti Smith, and is followed by a short story titled “Devotion” and a brief postscript.
Unfortunately, this first section veers — unintentionally, one hopes — toward a parody of the kind of high-toned aspirational lifestyle hokum that one sees in magazines aimed at a certain demographic. “I dress, grab my notebook and a copy of Patrick Modiano’s Paris Nocturne, and cross over to the neighborhood café,” Smith writes. “I have another black coffee and a bowl of blueberries.” The oh-so-tasteful work in translation! The bowl of berries! One almost expects a T Magazine-style photo spread with discreet captions sourcing the exquisite accessories, prices tactfully omitted.
“Devotion,” the story, is weak sauce, too: folktale claptrap about an orphan for whom ice skating “is pure feeling” and who has a tempestuous affair with a Svengali-like older man. At the end of the story, the protagonist “wept at last, not for the loss of him but of innocence.” Ouch.
What gives the story a ghostly resonance is the way that it picks up on elements that Smith scatters desultorily through the preceding essay: a snatch of an Estonian film, a memory of her father at an ice-skating event, a visit to a French cemetery. Operating in tandem, the two sections provide an organic illustration of how a creative mind transforms impressions and thoughts into art, itself a rare accomplishment, even if the end product is humdrum.
And the postscript produces a grudging admiration for the earnestness of its affect and the purity of its faith in writing. Smith’s open and authentic enthusiasm for her literary idols — Rimbaud, Camus, Blake — has always been an endearing part of her persona; here, she elevates an encounter with Camus’ last manuscript into “a call to action . . . to write something fine, that would be better than I am.” Or, as the book’s final lines have it: “Why do we write? A chorus erupts. Because we cannot simply live.”
It is that “we,” so canny and yet so generous-seeming, to which Smith’s acolytes, and the world at large, respond.
Michael Lindgren is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.
On Sept. 18 at 7 p.m., Patti Smith will be at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, 600 I St. NW, Washington. For ticket information, call Politics and Prose at 202-364-1919.
By Patti Smith
Yale Univ. Press. 93 pp. $18