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And sometimes we’ve already done it and we don’t even know, and we just have to keep going.
It’s that kind of mental restlessness that keeps us going and keeps us working.
Even though I can only read in translation, there are beautiful translations of Rimbaud, and not just Rimbaud but French literature in general. In the ’50s, when I was a kid, I loved looking at fashion magazines and the House of Dior and all the great houses, and then the films — Cocteau and Godard and Bresson — and the way they dressed, and the poets, the architecture.
(It is based on a speech Smith gave at Yale and is part of Yale University Press’s ¤ SCOTT TIMBERG: So I want to talk to you about the new book and the inspiration that went into it.
A lot of us who know your music have long been aware of your admiration for French literature, especially poetry — Baudelaire, the Symbolists, Rimbaud. What does French literature do that nothing else can: English literature can’t do it, rock ’n’ roll can’t do it, punk rock can’t do it … For me, when I was young, it was all about language.
Tom Verlaine is a really fine musician — he was an exception. And we weren’t just poets, we were people who loved poets, we were people who read all kinds of literature. And there wasn’t much difference in age between us, just a year or two. Unless it was a cabaret, but a lot of them had uptight rules. I interviewed Sonny Rollins once, and I asked him why, at age 82, he was still flying around the world playing when he could just hang out with his friends.
And so the first tier of CBGB’s had a poetic nucleus. And the great thing about CBGB’s was — we just did what we wanted. It was a really great place for us to develop a vision that sometimes was only half-formed. It’s just about the work, and where it goes comes second. But for me my target has always been an imagined greatness: I want to do something really great, or I want to do something better than the last thing, or I want to get closer to doing something of worth. I basically said: “Why are you still working this hard? ” And he said, essentially: “Well, I am Sonny Rollins, but I’m not yet the Sonny Rollins I want to be.” Yeah, exactly, I can totally relate to that.
The language to me was so beautiful, and I was just drawn to it.
Of course the work was paramount, but I was also fascinated by the lifestyle of someone like Rimbaud … I’ve always had an affection and felt an affiliation. That perhaps has shifted, and it might not have the same deep romance.— Patti Smith has earned a considerable reputation as a literary figure as well.She has introduced books of poems by Blake and Rimbaud, published several volumes of her own verse and song lyrics, and won the National Book Award for , a slim volume that is — at once — an ode to her favorite French writers, a short story or fable about a mysterious young ice skater, and a meditation on the creative process.The language within Rimbaud to me was intoxicating.And I admit, at 16 years old, I didn’t always understand what I was reading, but it really didn’t matter.Did it seem like a whole different universe to you? By 16 I had read , so I was also connected with Mexico and with Tina Modotti and Frida Kahlo.