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.

Author Patti Smith (Steven Sebring)

“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.

(Yale University Press)

“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.

Devotion
Why I Write

By Patti Smith

Yale Univ. Press. 93 pp. $18