Patti Smith is a recognisable name amongst our parents generation, and perhaps a recognisable sound in ours. You may know her as a singer with her 1978 rock ballad, Because The Night, but what many people may not realise is she’s released several poetry books and memoirs, her most recent being a visual book called A Book of Days (2022). Her most popular, however, is her 2017 National Book Award winning memoir, Just Kids. Smith’s nostalgic, philosophic, and graceful prose is what makes readers fall in love with her.
You may have seen one of Smith’s quotes before; “Why do we write?…Because we cannot simply live.” which sums up her style nicely. Smith is a sensitive and observant writer, and this comes across in her writing, often adopting a retrospective narration, you can tell the moments she writes about stay warm in her heart and mind for decades. If you’re someone who enjoys celebrity reminiscences, the psychedelic 70’s, or feisty female writers, then you should check Patti out!
I stumbled upon Just Kids in the Urban Outfitters in Westfield on my 16th birthday. I had no clue who the two androgynous hippies on the front cover were, but their coolness drew me in. They turned out to be, obviously, Patti Smith, and not so obviously, Robert Mapplethorpe, an American photographer and Patti’s close friend. The memoir starts in 1989 on the morning Patti learns of Robert’s death. I recall standing in the upstairs of UO reading this introduction, wondering how someone could write so beautifully of their soulmate’s passing, and also what the word ascend meant (a word Patti uses A LOT). I immediately made the purchase and read the book in one night.
Just Kids takes us through both Robert and Patti’s respective childhoods, thier meeting, getting famous, Robert’s AIDs diagnosis, and finally, Patti’s grief. The memoir is one of the most poetic things I’ve ever read, and Patti’s voice is sweet and honest, making the reader feel as though they are not just listening in on her personal thoughts, but sharing them.
The scene that sticks out to me most from Just Kids is Patti’s late teen/early twenties recollections. This is the time she decides she wants to be a creative, and she travels to New York with a briefcase and no money. Although tough, Patti describes these memories with so much beauty and fondness, and a particular story about a necklace reminded me why I love reading memoir so much; for these specific personal moments that remind you the writer is human. I also remember being struck by Patti’s description of herself as ugly. I never thought she was, but I liked it. I liked the thought of being a bit nasty and misshapen. A lot of the beauty in Just Kids comes from Patti’s aptitude for authentic and charming descriptions.
Patti Smith also has a number of wonderful poetry collections including Woolgathering, The Coral Sea, and Babel. Her poems are slightly Plath-esque; very statement heavy and figurative, and this lead her to being grouped into the Punk poet genre. She writes poetry very masterfully, but perhaps that’s the singer in her, because they flow so well. A Patti Smith poetry book is a great way to introduce yourself to her, and is also the medium that lead her to music!
Despite her claim that writing Just Kids was not for catharsis, Patti has gone on to write a number of autobiographies, including New York Times Bestseller, Year of The Monkey (2019). The memoir concerns a tough 2016 for Patti as a political crisis is looming and all her friends are dying. Smith ponders over the nature of mortality in this journal-like book, and to be honest, it’s a very depressing read, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing (look at the success of A Little Life!). Year of The Monkey feels worlds away from Just Kids, but I don’t think this is on account of the author, but on her surroundings. There is a pessimistic air to this book, but it’s still a soft and sentimental read.
Patti Smith has laid out her life in words through music, poetry, and memoir, and I personally cannot thank her enough for letting us in on her most private moments. If you are looking for writing that has poise and sentimentality, then you should check out Patti Smith’s body of work.